Audio homily here:
The Pew Research Center regularly reports on trends in America and in the world and recently they reported on how Americans see their place in the world. Most Americans, the report said, think that we should deal with our own problems and let other countries deal with their problems as best they can. Reports like this don’t make a judgment whether this is a good trend or a bad trend, they just tell us the facts. But the trend seems to indicate that there’s an increasing fear in us that the world in becoming unmanageable, and so we should beware of taking on too much.
Today we’re celebrating the Feast of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised to send not only to his disciples but to the whole world. The Holy Spirit comes not only to us as individuals, to guide us on our way, to teach us all things, to help us to pray, but the Spirit also is sent into our world. Our temptation, unfortunately, is to see faith as just a personal thing and not affecting our whole world.
As we were preparing for this feast, I have been thinking how differently we know the Holy Spirit from the way we know Jesus and, to a certain extent, God the Father. Jesus is God come to us in human flesh, and so he has our “likeness” as St. Paul says. He’s born a child, lives as a man, reacts to events and people around him, he speaks in human words, he suffers and dies and rises. However distant the time of Jesus is from ours, we see and hear him as human like ourselves.
God the Father is also described in human terms. God is “Father”, a description we know is an analogous term. Calling God “Father” doesn’t mean that God is masculine, but the term itself offers us a human reference for God, the creator and sustainer of all things.
But the description of the Holy Spirit is more difficult to grasp, I think. What does “spirit” mean? The scriptures use symbolic ways to describe the Third Person of the Trinity. Our readings for the feast speak of the Spirit as a driving wind, tongues of fire that empowers the disciples to speak with wisdom, with new words, and to act bravely instead of fearfully.
I have been thinking lately of other symbolic ways the Spirit is described. One is a familiar symbol found in the New Testament and in art. The Spirit is a dove who rests on Jesus when he’s baptized in the Jordan by John.
There’s a bird feeder outside the monastery where I live in Queens, NY, and in the early morning before Mass I usually go out with a cup of coffee to watch the birds. Mostly house sparrows, but there’s a pair of doves who are regular visitors. Every once in awhile a hawk flies over and immediately the sparrows disappear. But the doves are the last to go and first back at the feeder. You might call them simple or dumb. But you could also say they’re fearless. They’re not afraid of the hawk.
Remember the bible story about Noah in the ark. Noah wonders if the flood waters are gone, so who does he finally send out? He sends out a dove, who returns with a twig from an olive plant. There’s life there, you can get out of the ark. The dove is not afraid of dangerous places or floodwaters. The Holy Spirit is not afraid of the chaos of our world, but recreates from the chaos.
The Spirit who appears at Jesus’ baptism as a dove also leads him into the desert, the realm of Satan. The scriptures say Jesus is hungry there, but he’s not afraid. Jesus defeats Satan in his realm.
Where are the disciples of Jesus in today’s gospel? They’re locked up in a room in fear when Jesus, risen from the dead, comes into their midst. He breathed on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” the Spirit whom he promised to give them. And what did they do? They left that room and went out into the world they feared, a world that the Spirit promises to recreate.